Tucson Cycling Trip Ride Report
by Rob Verfurth
Riders: Len, Bernie, Shawn, Jodie, Ruben & Rob
Len had been to Tucson about five years ago and done a number of great rides in the area. Todd Calloway was recently there and rode up Mt Lemmon twice, stud. Len pushed the Italian cycling trip gang to consider Tucson as a riding training adventure. We opened it up to the Descenders and a small group planned to head to Tucson. Our goals were to ride the following climbs:
- Kitt Peak Observatory
- Mt Lemmon
- Madera Canyon
- Mt Graham
On Friday, 13 April, Len, Bernie, Shawn and I loaded up two cars and headed for Tucson. Due to work, Jodie and Ruben planned to meet us later that night at the hotel. We made good time across I-8 and headed south to get to Kitt Observatory, just 40 miles west of Tucson. It was not until about 3:30 pm that we started our 12 mile climb up to the top. It was cool and breezy at the bottom and got colder and winder as we climbed. Bernie was way out front. Shawn and Len passed me at about the 5 mile mark and I swept. The views were awesome and we fortunately had a bit of a tailwind for most of the climb as the road circled around the mountain covered in white observatory domes. I got to the top at about 5 pm. We took a few quick photos and put on any extra layers we had; they were not enough. It was cold and blustery. Wind gusts around corners pushed us sideways and almost stopped us at times; we took the descent cautiously for sure. The ride total was only 24 miles with over 3,500 feet of climbing, nice warm-up for Mt Lemmon. We drove into Tucson and got to the Comfort Suites in Sabino Canyon in time for dinner. Len took us to the Eclectic Cafe. We had a nice meal and then met up with Jodie & Ruben who had just arrived.
The next morning, we had the complementary breakfast and were ready to tackle Mt Lemmon. Our route took us east on Tanque Verde Road and then north on Old Soldier Trail, we rode through a nice park and looped back to get to the start of the climb. Mt Lemmon is about a 24 mile climb up to Summerhaven, we did not go to the ski slope just a few miles farther. We do get to over 8,000 feet and climb for a long time. The road is clean, smooth and has a nice shoulder. The grade averages 4-5%, but there are plenty of rises that drain your reserves. We spread out on the climb with Bernie way out front. Len and Shawn passed me about mile 5 again, Ruben passed me about mile 15 and Jodie swept. The views were stunning; lots of photos in the link below. I was passed a few times by much better riders. I pushed to catch a wheel and hung on for as long as I could; burnt a few matches. The sun was out and it was not windy or cold, a perfect day to climb Mt Lemmon. My paced slowed and I was out of water. At mile 20 there was a bathroom and water pump near a hiking trailhead. I stopped to refill and eat my banana, I felt much better. Refreshed, my pace increased a bit as I neared the end of the climb. After mile 21.5 and after topping over 8,000 feet, you do a fast one mile descent and then retake the same elevation again for the final miles into Summerhaven. I caught up to Ruben as he was experiencing a bit of oxygen deprivation from the altitude. He said he would go slow and/or wait for Jodie. I headed up the last bit to get to the Cookie Cabin, where we planned to regroup. Bernie, Shawn and Len were relaxing on the outdoor patio in the bright sunshine. It was a beautiful day in the mountains. We ate and drank a bit with Ruben and Jodie joining us soon after. We put on finger gloves and layers, something we sorely needed the previous day at Kitt Peak. The first mile or so climb out of Summerhaven jolted the legs and then there was the one mile descent at mile 21.5 that you now had to climb, but overall it was a 20+ mile epic descent. Bernie, Shawn and I stopped at the same water hole I found at mile 20, Len kept going. Bernie waited for Jodie and Ruben so we decided to chase Len. The descent was one of the best I have ever experienced. Car traffic was light, the road was smooth and I passed a handful of cars. I averaged well over 30 mph for about a 14 mile stretch, the bottom came quickly. We all stopped on the side of the road to take off layers and regroup. The final 8 miles home to the hotel were a straight shot along East Catalina Highway, we finished with 70 miles and just under 7,300 feet of elevation gain. It was worth all the pain, great climb.
The gang relaxed at the hotel, hit the pool & spa and then got ready for a quick trip down memory lane. They were all gracious enough to join me in going to Cafe Molina, only a mile or so from our hotel. Cafe Molina is an old Mexican food establishment that has been there since 1947. My parents were there every week when my mom was finishing her education degree at University of Arizona and my dad was in flight school for the USAF back in 1956. I ate there every week a few years later when we lived in Tucson until late 1961. The food was fine, we had fun enjoying a cheese pizza and other Mexican specialities. I had a nice margherita and Negro Modelo as well. I took some photos for my parents that we also included in the trip album. We had a nice group dinner and headed back to the hotel for bed.
Sunday had us up early so we could drive to Madera Canyon and still allow Bernie and Shawn to drive back to San Diego. Ruben had to leave that morning, so he missed the ride. We drove about 45 minutes south of Tucson to Green Valley. The road stopped after 13 miles. Bernie and Shawn headed out right after the group photo. Len, Jodie and I took our time getting prepped and starting our ride. It was warming nicely and there was no wind, another nice morning to ride. We climbed slowly up the two-lane road with very little traffic; probably as many riders are cars. Early on we passed what appeared to be a bee hive right on the side of the road. All the bees were just in a pile, swarming and buzzing around. From a respectful distance we watched and took some photos. The gradient was only 3-4% with some pitches as we made our way toward Mount Wrightson in the distance. About mile 10.5, Bernie and Shawn were descending fast towards us. They flew by, went back to the hotel to clean up and then drove back to San Diego. Len, Jodie and I pootled our way up the steep 15+ degree pitches the last few miles to get to the hiking trailhead of Old Baldy Trail. It takes you to the top of Mt Wrightson. Len met two couples from Canada that were on vacation . He made his best moves on one of the wife’s; at least they were still kind enough to take a group photo of us. We had another speedy descent back down to Green Valley. We took in the bees again, they had moved a few feet close to the road. The ride was only 26 miles in total with about 2,600 feet of climbing, we were saving ourselves for Mt Graham the following day. At the bottom we relaxed at Posada Java, where lots of cyclists go, to have something to eat and drink. We hit the pool/spa again and then decided to walk around the University of Arizona campus. It is a nice campus and I was able to take a photo of my mom’s sorority house. I dropped them at the hotel and spun by my old home, just a few miles south of the hotel. I was a wee lad and remember nothing of the place but captured a photo for my parents. Len, Jodie and I hit Eclectic Cafe again and had a nice dinner. We had been checking the weather at Mt Graham and things looked bad for our planned Monday ride–20+ mph winds at the top. We decided it was not wise to drive two hours to the start of a climb to 10,000+ feet with cold temps and high winds predicted; plan B started to be considered.
Our last day in Tucson and no Mt Graham. Len knew of a ride along Old Spanish Trail to the Saguaro National Park. We left from the hotel by 8 am and spun about 10 miles to get to the park entrance. Len had his Senior Pass so we got in for free. Inside the park is a beautiful 9 mile loop road of one-way traffic. The saguaro cactus, ocotillo and tons of other desert flora provided dramatic scenery. Jodie & I snapped a number of photos at many of the vista spots along the hilly, curvy road loop. We met a local cyclist who recommended we continue on Old Spanish Trail for 10 miles and do the Pistol Hill Loop. It was a nice addition to our ride and we then spun back towards the hotel with a reroute along one of the many "river" pathways. The "rivers" are all dried river beds, there only to avert flooding if/when it does rain, but they do provide a nice platform for paths on both sides that cuts through the east side of Tucson. We got back to the hotel with 52 miles and 2,300 feet of climbing; no Mt Graham but a fun morning of riding. We relaxed again in the pool/spa and packed up for the trip home. For dinner, Jodie found a pizza place called Falora; they had vegan options. Falora was only a few miles from our hotel and it proved to be a great find. We had a nice dinner and then went back to finish packing.
There was some discussion to have us drive via Kitt Peak to tackle that climb again on the way back to San Diego. Fortunately, that crazy talk quickly died. Our legs and bodies were done. The drive was uneventful and we discussed the good news around Jodie’s new Sociology book she is having published. Thanks to Len for driving his car. We dropped off Jodie and then Len got me to my home by mid-afternoon. The Tucson Cycling Trip was a great time. The Descenders should do one in the spring or fall in the next couple of years. I will go again and plan to tackle Mt Graham on the next trip. Enjoy the photos.